Getting through the high school basketball season in the face of a worldwide pandemic will be a challenge, but those responsible for overseeing the sport think it’s possible.
GHSA assistant athletic director Ernie Yarbrough, who is in charge of basketball and officiating for the organization, said the GHSA, school systems and programs are working together to take every known precautionary measure to prevent major outbreaks of COVID-19. As a result, he believes that will pave a successful path to the state championships, which are scheduled for March 4-7 at the Macon Centreplex.
“I think our schools are doing a terrific job of monitoring the situation,” Yarbrough said. “(GHSA executive director) Robin Hines is on an advisory committee and sits in on weekly meetings with medical experts in the field, and as long as all participants involved stay safe, I see no reason the season can’t be completed, like in football.”
That’s not to say there have not been challenges. Many programs have shut down more than once for multiple weeks, causing major disruptions in team practices and scheduling.
The Buford girls team, which is ranked No. 1 in 6A and won Class 5A last season, shut down for three weeks in December after 10 people within the program tested positive for COVID-19. Alpharetta’s boys team has shut down two times. Two private schools, Riverside Military in Gainesville and The Paideia School in Atlanta, canceled basketball before the season started. Longtime South Atlanta boys coach Michael Reddick, whose teams have won two state titles, is sitting out the season as a precaution.
Yarbrough estimates he is receiving only one or two emails a week from school systems and officials associations notifying him of game cancellations or rescheduled games. That is much lower than he expected. He also said the worst-case scenario of shutting down the season is a decision that would be made around this time, and no discussions have taken place.
“It would probably (take) a number of school systems canceling (their basketball seasons),” Yarbrough said. “Back during football, some teams were canceling before the season started, but then later they decided to play. We’re halfway through the season now, seven weeks in. I would think that if anyone was going to (cancel), it would happen this week, coming off the holidays. As long as the majority of school systems are playing, we will continue our season.”
There have been significant changes. The state semifinals won’t be held at neutral sites for the first time since 2012 because the colleges which typically host the competition aren’t allowing outside entities. Instead, the higher seed will host or a GHSA universal coin toss will decide home-court advantage in the case where two like seeds meet.
The GHSA has issued a 700-word document for basketball rules modifications that includes guidelines for pregame protocols, team benches and the officials table and other in-game changes, such as eliminating the jump ball. But the organization is leaving most other modifications — fan attendance and safety protocols — up to the individual school systems. So if there is a positive case within a program, it could continue to play through the playoffs, with the infected player quarantined, if that’s what the school system dictates.
Game officials have the option of wearing face masks and using electronic whistles, which prevents the excretion of saliva, and they can enter the gym already dressed in their uniforms because there are no designated facilities for them to change clothes.
Buford girls coach Gene Durden said this has been one of the more challenging seasons in his 30-plus seasons of coaching, but that he’s better off having gone through it.
“I’m an old dinosaur who is set in my ways,” he said. “I like to do things one way, but I feel this will make me a better coach down the line because I learned to be more flexible, more outside-the-box and a better problem-solver outside of the basketball floor.
“I would encourage everyone to take these tough times and turn them into as many positives as we can.”
The Milton boys basketball team, ranked No. 1 in 7A, was fortunate to gain approval from Fulton County Schools to compete in a national tournament in late December — the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. — which the Eagles won. Participating in the tournament required following extensive protocol, including no direct contact with anyone outside of the team when not playing.
The protocols and planning add an extra degree of difficulty to the season, Eagles coach Allen Whitehart said.
“I call it basketball Darwinism,” he said. “Survival of the fittest. It’s not just about being the best team, it’s about being symptom-free. One kid can’t get sick, or you’re done.”
Despite the obstacles, Durden is among a loud chorus within the high school basketball community grateful that the GHSA and state school systems are pushing through.
“I’ve become really good friends with some coaches in Virginia, and they’re not allowed a season there,” Durden said. “I’m just thankful we have a chance to compete. I know it will be a challenge, and we’ll see more situations down the line. But we’ll adjust and do our best.”